Peter Lawson Jones’ bio in the playbill for The Great White Hope doesn’t mention that he’s a Cuyahoga County commissioner. It doesn’t even say he’s a lawyer. The Peter Lawson Jones in Karamu House’s latest play is a Jones from the alternate universe of theater. “In addition to doing voice-over and commercial work, Peter is a playwright,” the cast bio says demurely.
I went to see The Great White Hope last night to enjoy the absolutely fascinating story of Jack Johnson, the fearless, cocky, skirt-chasing provocateur who became the first black heavyweight boxing champion in 1908. But I also got a good look at Jones immersed in his other great passion, the theater, and how he integrates it with his political life.
Jones plays Tick, who trains Jack Jefferson, the play’s fictionalized version of Johnson. This is no cameo. Jones is onstage more than anyone except the actors who portray Johnson and his girlfriend.
He proves he’s got acting talent. I didn’t see the Jones I’m used to: The formal lawyer, so careful and precise with his words he can sometimes seem stiff. Jones gives Tick a turn-of-the-20th-century drawl and a physical wiliness, slipping out of the boxer’s way at one moment, getting between him and trouble the next. He’s funny and folksy, wise but reticent.
This is Jones’ third acting gig in two years: He’s appeared in Karamu’s A House With No Walls and the Cleveland Play House’s Bourbon at the Border. He was active in student theater at Harvard, and wrote a play back then, The Family Line, which Karamu produced in 2005. He’s also writing another play, Bloodless Jungle, about a politician torn between friendship and civic duty (timely, huh?). He’s a board member at Karamu, the 95-year-old multicultural theater Langston Hughes once wrote for. He told Mike McIntyre of the Plain Dealer that if he leaves politics, he may well take a shot at professional acting.
Don’t count him out as a lame duck just yet, though. Jones hosted a fundraiser for his campaign committee before last night’s performance. Guests — including prominent county contractor Dominic Ozanne — also got tickets to the play. It’s something Jones has done along with all three of his local acting appearances, he told me after the show.
How was the play? I agree with the theater critics (see the Plain Dealer, Scene, and Rave and Pan): The main actors are great. Anthony Elfonzia Nickerson-El plays Jefferson with the ferocious charisma and dignified rage the part demands. Ursula Cataan is passionate, gorgeous, and graceful as Eleanor Bachman, the white woman Jefferson risks his career for. They and Jones make the play worthwhile. But the 1968 play is too long at three hours, with too many over-the-top scenes that don’t include the main characters. An abridged production would’ve packed more punch.
Still, Clevelanders into both politics and theater will be jaw-hanging shocked at one scene: A purposely awkward play-within-a-play staging of a scene from Uncle Tom’s Cabin — with Jones as Topsy(!), dancing goofily, arms flailing, in a gingham dress and pigtails.
Watching Jones’ spectacularly ridiculous moment, his total letting-go for comedy’s sake, a thought came into my head: Tim Hagan would never do this.
But Jimmy Dimora might.
The Great White Hope runs at Karamu House through Sunday, March 14, then moves to Akron’s Weathervane Playhouse April 1-18. If you’re interested in Jack Johnson’s life, the PBS documentary by Ken Burns, Unforgivable Blackness, is required Netflix-ing.